Finding: Musselshell County undersheriff violated election laws while running for sheriff

Posted at 3:20 PM, Oct 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-23 17:22:24-04

BILLINGS – A candidate for Musselshell County sheriff violated state election laws by promoting his campaign while on duty as undersheriff, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices ruled Monday.

However, Undersheriff Shawn Lesnik was cleared of other allegations in the complaint, including intimidation and harassment of Musselshell County employees and having improper access to ballots, Commissioner Jeff Mangan’s office said in its ruling.

The case now goes back to Musselshell County Attorney Kevin Peterson for prosecution or fine, according to Mangan.

MTN News has reached out to Lesnik and will update this story with any response.

Mangan said there is no probable cause to file criminal charges in the alleged complaint about having access to ballots, a separate decision made with the help of the Montana Department of Criminal Investigations and the Yellowstone County Attorney’s office.

Lesnik is running for sheriff as a Republican. He will face write-in candidate Ronnie Burns in the Nov. 6 election, according to the Musselshell County website.

The original complaint was filed July 2 by Shirley Marking and Teresa Fauth, both of Roundup, to the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices. In their complaint, they allege that Lesnik actively campaigned while at work and repeatedly intimidated or harassed people he felt were not supportive of his campaign for Sheriff.

The result of the investigation breaks down a series of fact-finding missions that stem from the complaint.

When it comes to violation of campaign practices, the commissioner determined that there is sufficient evidence to show that Lesnik violated Montana’s campaign practice laws.

There are five alleged instances where Lesnik is said to have campaigned while on a shift in the complaint. Mangan said in his findings that there are two confirmed occasions on May 14 and 15, 2018 where Lesnik engaged in soliciting support for his candidacy as Sheriff while on duty in public.

In the findings, Mangan said public employees cannot carry out activities intended to cultivate support or opposition for an elected office while on the job.

The commissioner said, “When Lesnik is functioning as a public employee, the topic of his candidacy should be avoided at all costs.”

When it came to the accusation of intimidation and harassment Mangan reviewed an interaction between Lesnik and Heidi Taylor, a Musselshell County employee.

The commissioner did not find that Taylor felt threatened or harassed during an interaction reported in the complaint, but did find that Taylor did not like the fact that Lesnik came to her to promote his campaign. Still, Taylor maintained to Mangan that Lesnik did not act threatening or harassing and did not coerce her in any way to vote in favor of his campaign.

The commissioner said the next step is to determine if prosecution or a fine will come next and the findings are sent to the county attorney’s office.

Mangan said if the county attorney waives the right to prosecute or fails to prosecute in 30 days, it is sent back to the Commissioner of Political Practices for possible prosecution.

Mangan said most matters are resolved with the payment of a fine.

Lesnik previously told MTN News that the complaints are an attempt to defame his character.

Read Mangan’s decision here.

Reporting by Andrea Lutz for MTN News